We all suffer. That is the truest truism of being a being. Trauma is a type of suffering that is at the root of addictive tendencies and many other problems.
What is Trauma?
Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past
Trauma affects the entire human organism—body, mind, and brain. In PTSD the body continues to defend against a threat that belongs to the past. Healing from PTSD means being able to terminate this continued stress mobilization and restoring the entire organism to safety.
When the brain’s alarm system is turned on, it automatically triggers preprogrammed physical escape plans in the oldest parts of the brain.
“If for some reason the normal response is blocked—for example, when people are held down, trapped, or otherwise prevented from taking effective action, be it in a war zone, a car accident, domestic violence, or a rape—the brain keeps secreting stress chemicals, and the brain’s electrical circuits continue to fire in vain. Long after the actual event has passed, the brain may keep sending signals to the body to escape a threat that no longer exists.”
These attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases. This explains why it is critical for trauma treatment to engage the entire organism, body, mind, and brain.
Being able to move and do something to protect oneself is a critical factor in determining whether or not a horrible experience will leave long-lasting scars.
Excerpt From: Bessel van der Kolk MD. “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.”
When we’re traumatized, the memory and emotional sensitivity systems of the brain get damaged. The systems to inhibit emotion are weakened and the systems to feel emotion are heightened. Apparently, we can’t shrink the sensitivity part back to normal once it’s damaged, so this heightened sensitivity can be permanent.
Since the emotional sensitivity centers get larger, we have difficulty with overwhelming emotional experiences. This means we can get triggered easily and relive traumatic sensations. But since our memory systems fail we have difficulty knowing on a neurophysiological level that we’re not in a life-threatening situation.
Goal seeking behavior is one of the most satisfying human experiences we can have. It’s not the destination but the journey, as we’ve all heard ad nauseam. That’s one reason why addicts like drugs. We can plan it, we can get it and experience the reward. Then the game starts again.
We can use this knowledge, just like knowing that as addicts we’re naturally obsessive, and using that obsessive mind to achieve a good goal, like a college degree or a creative project. We can transform liabilities into assets and use them to reprogram our brains to achieve goals that help us heal, rather than rewound us.
Healing from trauma, and maybe from all suffering, means that we come home to a sense of safety, and a place to rest and regroup. To do that we have to flip the stress switch off. We can do that by charting a course home and taking steps along the path to safety.
All of Compassionate Recovery is about healing our deepest wounds so we can be free and rest at home in our body, with calm, healing energy and a still mind. Then we can invite others to visit us in our compassion-centered state, just being in our presence.
One important thing we can do is feel the feelings as they arise and learn to apply compassion in the deepest place where we feel that pain, anxiety, or unrest.
Emotions like love, anxiety, and fear originate beneath the level of consciousness, deep in the physical structure of the brain and deep in our soul. Since we’re hypersensitive, we can benefit by getting into that dreamlike state between wakefulness and sleep and initiating a transformation of our state.
Since emotions are more intuitive than logical, they can be difficult to understand intellectually. So we have to be really relaxed to be aware of the feelings as they arise from the root. Then we hold those feelings like a newborn baby in our arms. With gentle, calm assurance that it’s OK, we bring what Tibetans call the love that a mother has for her only child to our own trauma.
If you can’t do yoga, you can use this practice in your meditation.
To use the power of our yoga practice to heal, we can follow a Compassion Roadmap.
Set an intention.
To begin, take a moment to check in and become aware of your feelings in your body. If you can do this before class it will be helpful, but it will be beneficial even if you do it during or after class. You can work on something that’s just come up for you or something that’s been difficult longer term.
As you become aware of any feeling that you would like to change, take note of it but don’t push it away. Imagine holding it like a newborn baby. Write it down. You could say, “I would like to transform this feeling of anxiety to one of calmness.” That’s your intention.
Imagine how it would feel to feel better. Bring to mind a time or situation when you didn’t have that anxiety or fear. Imagine that you have already transformed and healed your sense of anxiety into a sense of being calm, resting at home with your cat on the couch, or something like that.
Go to your class. Work with the intention.
Sit quietly on your mat for a few minutes if possible. Be aware of your intention. Say to yourself, “I want to heal this anxiety.” As you work through the postures, breathing and movement, gently remind yourself of your desire to transform that feeling, especially if it comes up unexpectedly and begins to overwhelm you. Hold it like a mother holds her only child.
Just like we come back to the breath over and over in class, come back to your intention to heal.
Meditate on it after class.
Review the process. We became aware of our feelings. We set a goal, worked on that process and are now in a different space.
If you have time to sit in silent meditation for 20 minutes or more after class, try that. Otherwise, make note to use the effects of class in your post-class compassion meditation. Practice gratitude for whatever awareness you have around this practice. Share it with your Trusted Circle or wherever you feel safe.
This practice is a before, during and after process. This goal-seeking feel better game is one that you can play over and over, hopefully with some great results that you can share with others.